TIRED though you may by now be after six years of reading about Syria’s seemingly unending travails, you still cannot but turn away in nauseated disbelief at the news, widely reported in the international media earlier this week, that the Syrian government has executed up to 13,000 people in mass hangings in just one of its prisons, a military correctional facility outside Damascus known as Saydnaya, between the start of the uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in 2011 and December 2015.
Amnesty International, which released the report about the hangings last Monday, claimed that its findings were based on interviews with 84 people, including former detainees, guards, judges and officials at the prison, and that the executions had been authorized at the highest levels of government. Details in the report, grotesque to the extreme, show how every week, and often twice a week, groups of between 20 and 50 prisoners were executed in total secrecy at the facility.
Before execution, the victims were brought to a military court for “trials” that lasted only a few minutes. No defense. No lawyer. No appeal. And lest we forget, last August, Amnesty International reported that an estimated 17,723 people had additionally died as a result of torture, or of deprivation of food, water and medical care, between March 2011 – the outset of the uprising – and the end of December 2015.
Predictably, the Syrian government disputed all this, with the Justice Ministry in Damascus saying that claims by Amnesty International were completely false, “intended to harm Syria’s international reputation.” Now one wonders why Amnesty International would stand to gain in harming Syria’s sterling international reputation. But the human rights group has not been the only watchdog to take the government in Damascus to task for its excesses over the last six years.
In an article on the BBC’s website last Thursday, the British broadcasting body quoted several human rights experts who had gone on record last year saying that witness accounts strongly suggested that “tens of thousands of people” were being detained and that “deaths on a massive scale” were occurring in custody.
While at the beginning of the conflict these detainees were primarily protesters, later the target became journalists, social critics, intellectuals, academics, lawyers and others, snatched from the country’s streets, homes and workplaces, and later taken to official or secret detention facilities – from there to vanish without a trace, presumed “disappeared.”
The term “disappeared” or “forced disappearance” gained currency first in Chile after the country’s 1973 coup, when thousands of dissidents became “desperados” after getting captured by Augusto Pinochet’s intelligence services. The term, along with the term’s context, later became naturalized into English and other languages.
Beyond the law, beyond UN statutes, beyond Amnesty International, lies the impact on the mind and soul of those who survived the noose, the sadistic beating, the unattended wounds, the starvation, hearing the eerie screams of fellow-prisoners being tortured – and now are free to live in the outside world
In international human rights law, a “forced disappearance” occurs when a person is secretly abducted with the authorization, support or acquiescence of a state, followed by a refusal to acknowledge that person’s fate and whereabouts. The practice is thus vehemently proscribed. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed at any civilian population, a “forced disappearance” qualifies as a “crime against humanity.” No mincing of words here.
Beyond the law, beyond UN statutes, beyond Amnesty International, lies the impact on the mind and soul of those who survived the noose, the sadistic beating, the unattended wounds, the starvation, hearing the eerie screams of fellow-prisoners being tortured – and now are free to live in the outside world.
The consequence of experiences like that reach far beyond the immediate pain the victim feels while incarcerated, for survivors go on to suffer the ravages of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, whose symptoms, well known to the therapeutic community, include flash-backs, severe anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, depression and memory lapses. Therapists – being therapists, and thus imbued with a penchant for wanton psychologizing – see all that as a normal human response to an abnormal human condition.
Torturing prisoners – in this case, before hanging them in batches of 20 to 50 once or twice a week – is not only a dreadful act but is also, at a seminal level of relating to it, an ironic act. For to silence, incarcerate or torture to death a man because you disagree with his views is to pay tribute – a sinister tribute to be exact, but tribute nevertheless — to the value of ideas in human affairs.
Let’s face it, torture has been practiced throughout human history, from slow death in the desert sun in ancient Egypt to slow death by crucifixion in imperial Rome; from slow death on the rack during the Inquisition to slow death by electric shock in “French” Algeria in recent decades Still, torture is torture, even where the methods employed are different in kind and in degree, in locale and in era.
Torture inflicts pain on human beings for the perverse purpose of fulfilling a torturer’s desire to extract information, force a confession or derive sadistic gratification. We mourn the horrible deaths of those 13,000 or so victims who perished in the prison yards of Saydanya, as we feel with the tens of thousands of others who remain behind bars and who, should they survive their ordeal and be released, will need years to heal.
These folks’ only crime, really, was that, by a trick of fate, they lived in modern-day Syria, where, as Voltaire opined about intolerant regimes, “It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” Meanwhile, the suffering of that tormented country we call Syria should not be allowed to slip from our conscience.
[Fawaz Turki is a Palestinian-American journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington, DC]